Friday, May 3, 2013

The Unnervingly Absurd

Guillermo del Toro once said, "Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don't wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment."

Like many of my peers, I went through the "goth" phase in middle and high school. I didn't dress the part, but oh boy did I get into the culture. I made up a little shrine in our bedroom I shared with my brother and sister, decorated it with black candles, fake skulls, old crucifixes, found bones, and rabbit fur. I collected daggers and crystals and tarot cards. I read a stupid amount of literature about demons (it's some great stuff, really!), satanism, witchcraft, and vampires, werewolves, and whatever else I could think of. As a raised-atheist, I was more fascinated with the aesthetic of the "goth" than I was serious about joining any community, or paganism, or dressing up.

I did, however, grow obsessed with horror films and literature. The grittier, bloodier, scarier the better. In many ways, it was my gateway drug for my love of the absurd. There's something deliciously and wondrously scary and fascinating about horror that makes no sense. My favorites always leaned towards the bizarre, the flamboyant, the subversive, and the no-excuses stupid--Clive Barker, Guillermo del Toro, and old-time Peter Jackson were gods among men. I devoured Coscarelli's Phantasm movies with fangirl voraciousness (ignoring the existence of the second film completely), screamed with glee through Jackson's Brain Dead and Bad Taste, Gordon's The Re-Animator and Steve Miner's The House, and I still think that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a work of art.

What made these films for me was not just how outrageous they were, but how confusing they were. Nothing was explained, or if it was, it wasn't remotely satisfactory and only left more questions. In the Japanese film Versus, the random zombies are just that... random. Why are there zombies? What do they have to do with anything? Why the hell is any of this happening? I loved it. Some films fall far off the edge into the absurd enough that they are simply hilarious, but many keep their footing on the line between unnervingly frightening and hysterically bizarre.

David Lynch is a master of this. Sure, Twin Peaks was insanely mild compared to Eraserhead or Blue Velvet, but they all teetered well on that line of the unnervingly absurd. I had never been literally shaken by a movie until I saw Eraserhead. I had seen at least a thousand horror films up to that point. Even the man himself gives me the willies with his strange hair, high-pitched child-like voice, and fondness for meditation and coffee.

For me, the second you name a monster or give it a substantial reason... the horror is dead. Along with it: my interest. I am not scared of ghosts or vampires or werewolves or mummies or zombies. They are no more scary than tigers or lions or bears. Chances are, I won't be running into one in downtown Chicago. To me, The Walking Dead is just an amalgam of everything I've already seen before and more. Movies where the ghost is haunting a house because she died some dreadful death and wants everyone else to pay is YAWN-worthy. Oh who cares? Get over it, ghost. Slender man? Puh. We've seen it all a million times before. There's already hundreds of webpages dedicated to all the horror cliches and, boy, there are a lot of directors who seem to think these lists are just a wealth of knowledge to copy/paste from. I don't even like the films where there IS some big new reveal, like: hey, that creepy young girl is actually a 40 year old woman! Oh shit!

Woo. She's now no longer remotely frightening. She's just an evil little shit. I have sisters scarier than her.

I don't want a big reveal. I don't want an explanation at all. This was the beauty of Let the Right One In, the original. Was there any exposition on vampires? No. It moved forward on the basis that you already knew the rules and regulation of vampires, and it just told its own story. What made it creepy? All the things that were left unexplained. It was nice finding out a lot more about the vampire and the old pedophile in the book, but I prefer how the film treated it... leaving it open.

To move further into the absurd, this is also why Deadly Premonitions is the first video game I think of when people ask "can video games be art?" Oh, man, is this game terrible. The mechanics are horrendous. I can't get through a single "zombie" fight without pathetically crying for my brother to play it for me because I can't aim and shoot the stupid handgun gun for shit. (It's simply embarrassing!) Lolipops cost a whole 35 bucks in the vending machines and you spend half the game making sure your clothes are washed and driving through town for no reason... but honestly? It's perfect. All of it. It's perfect in how terrible it is. It's perfect in how weird it is. You play the main character's imaginary/alternate personality and you read the future in coffee cream. You find jars of pickles and turkey-cereal sandwiches on corpses and the "zombies" only want you to kill them and to shove their hands down your throat. It's an absurdist's dream come true. I only wish that it never ended. Just an unending loop of weird.

My brother likes to argue that Minecraft, in all it's Lego-like glory, is actually a survival horror game and the scariest game he's ever played. Sure, I think it's jumpy as all hell. It's not often in a game where I nearly throw my keyboard across the room because an exploding monster landed next to me in a mineshaft. But would I call it a horror game? No. My brother argues that the developers need to add more story, more plot, more reason to Minecraft. Why are we in the randomly generated world? What is our purpose other than to survive? What is the genre of this game? Is it medieval or present day? Is there an end goal? Is there something we should uncover? We've even gotten into stupidly-heated arguments about this, because I argue, quite adamantly, that NO, there should NOT be a storyline to this game. That is the true beauty of Minecraft. That is the art of this game. There is no reason for whatever you do. You can build anything. A castle, a skyscraper, a 1 to 1 ratio replica of the starship Enterprise, a red-stone powered computer, LCD screen, a 3D printer... anything. You can build nothing and simply enjoy the randomness of the generated world and all the creatures in it. And like an MMO, Minecraft is ever-evolving. Growing. I played Minecraft from early Beta to today. I love that the additions make little sense. Hey, we're adding horses and hoppers and solar panels! You want to build past the cloud barrier and into space? We've added that too. We went from having only plains and stone to mountains, tundra, jungles, deserts, mushroom islands, and swamp. There are so many more mobs and creatures. The game has even developed its only physics and logic that only apply to Minecraft. Ocelots turn into pet cats when carefully given fish. Everything but sand and gravel can float in the air. It's only getting more complex... and more absurd. It's beautiful.

(Note: Some would argue that there's an "Ender Dragon" that is the "end" of the game, but all it does is make you face a completely optional dragon that you can kill which will then prompt a poem in Swedish which makes little sense and you go back to doing whatever it was you were doing before. It's no more of an "end" than a crazy side quest in any other game.)

Many have argued that there is no such thing as originality, and sure, there is some merit to that. Others argue that everything is original because nothing is ever the same (in that sense, there is no originality, only the unique). If you haven't already gathered: I don't like cliches. I don't like seeing the same thing the same way twice. I don't even like eating the same thing the same way twice. Now, I'm more forgiving in some film and literary genres, but overall, my favorite things are the strange. The weird.

It is entirely possible to form a shape from very familiar things and create something that makes no sense at all. And that thing... it's beautiful. That is what I want to see more of. These beautiful, hilarious, and unnervingly absurd monsters.

And I don't want any explanation.